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Staff burnout, turnover at root of millions in child abuse settlements against Philly welfare agencies

“Who knew what, and when? We’re left not knowing,” said one advocate for victims of child abuse, citing confidential legal settlements.

Turning Points For Children, based in Center City, agreed through its insurance provider to a confidential deal to pay $6 million to three young girls who were returned to their abusive father. He is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.
Turning Points For Children, based in Center City, agreed through its insurance provider to a confidential deal to pay $6 million to three young girls who were returned to their abusive father. He is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The three girls should never have been returned to their father.

The man had a criminal record, a history of abuse, no source of income, and no permanent address. He hadn’t taken a psychological evaluation, despite a court order.

But for reasons still unexplained, Philadelphia’s foster-care system ignored those red flags and eventually placed the sisters, ages 9 to 14, back into their father’s care in 2016. His sexual and physical assaults against them continued until his arrest in 2017.

That was the basis of two lawsuits, which settled last month for more than $10 million, against Turning Points for Children, the city’s largest child welfare provider, and Carson Valley Children’s Aid, a suburban residential facility where one of the girls had lived. (The Inquirer does not generally identify victims of sexual abuse.)

The alleged failures almost escaped public scrutiny, because the providers and the girls’ lawyers settled both cases on the condition that the names of the providers not be disclosed. The Inquirer identified the two agencies through court records.

Similar lawsuits alleging negligence against Turning Points and other city-funded child welfare providers continue to mount — more than a dozen cases have been filed in state and federal court in recent years.

» READ MORE: Child welfare agency hired by city pays $6M for putting 3 girls back with abusive dad

Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services says it does not track lawsuits or legal settlements against its hundreds of outsourced agencies, despite a contractual requirement that the companies tell the city when they have been sued.

“We have reminded providers that this is their responsibility,” said DHS spokesperson Heather Keafer, when asked about the Turning Points case.

Attorneys and advocates for children say the abuse of the girls and the massive financial penalties reveal flawed oversight and systemic problems in the city’s child welfare system, including high turnover among staff.

Philadelphia is one of the few major cities in the country that outsources foster child cases to outside managers. In 2014, the city established a network of 10 geographic divisions, each run by a community umbrella agency that handles cases in its division. Turning Points operates four of these agencies and is paid more than $50 million annually through the city’s DHS.

Settlements resulting from lawsuits are not directly paid by taxpayers but by insurance companies for the welfare providers. City funds, however, do pay the providers more than $6.3 million annually for the cost of their insurance premiums, according to DHS.

Some lawmakers are now calling for details of such payouts to be shared with the public.

» READ MORE: Youth home adds $4.6M to settlement for Philly girls reunited with abusive father

Councilmember Helen Gym passed a bill in 2019 that requires the city to publicly disclose its own legal settlements every quarter, but the law did not require contractors such as Turning Points to disclose its payouts.

“Any city contractor serving an important public function like safeguarding our city’s young people should be held to these same obligations,” Gym said. “We should take every step necessary to ensure these heartbreaking failures are not repeated.”

Advocates say shielding such settlements hampers the city’s ability to oversee the complex foster-care system.

“Settlements like this don’t necessarily reveal the truth of what happened in the case,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, a nonprofit legal network that represents hundreds of child abuse victims. “It never went to trial. We never find out what happened to the children in this case. Who knew what, and when? We’re left not knowing.”

» READ MORE: Pa. officials say the Philly child abuse case that settled for $6M was kept from them

Turning Points said in a statement to The Inquirer last week that community umbrella organizations are one of only several stakeholders that recommend to the court where children in their care should be placed, and that a judge, based on that advice, ultimately determines when a child is reunited with parents.

Even so, Turning Points acknowledged that after the three sisters were returned to their abusive father in 2016, it has retrained staff, revamped its case transfer process, and used cases like this one to teach employees how to better protect children under their care.

Turning Points and the Philadelphia DHS declined to share details about their investigations into the case, citing a 2013 state law that protects child and parent privacy in abuse cases.

Court records show more than a dozen ongoing lawsuits alleging that the negligence of Philadelphia child welfare agencies resulted in injuries or wrongful deaths.

Turning Points, for example, was sued last year after the 2019 death of 4-year-old Zya Singleton. She was allegedly killed by her guardian in what a Philadelphia prosecutor called “potentially one of the worst cases of child abuse anyone has ever seen.”

Lawsuits over negligent care in Philadelphia’s foster-care system go back decades, including a 1990 class-action lawsuit brought by 16 youths in the city’s custody. After a settlement nearly a decade later, the city modernized its record keeping, improved training of case managers, and unified the foster system under 10 umbrella agencies, all part of an effort to keep foster children closer to their homes and to reduce backlogs at DHS headquarters.

But today, advocates say structural problems persist that put children at risk.

In some of the ongoing lawsuits, attorneys for victims say critical information that could have protected people from harm was not properly handled by the agencies.

Nancy Winkler, an attorney whose firm has filed numerous child abuse cases against community umbrella agencies, said staff turnover and lack of training often allowed “red flags” to be ignored.

Cervone, from the Support Center for Child Advocates, says the revolving door of case managers often means no permanent person is attached to a case, which can lead to mistakes. Pennsylvania foster children spend an average of 16 months in the system, according to Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

“Remembering is critical in any sort of human service work,” Cervone said. “Remembering that this child had this traumatic history, or already had that treatment, or needs special education services. If it doesn’t get remembered, then it doesn’t get delivered.”

In a statement, Turning Points’ deputy executive director, David Fair, said burnout stretches across the system. The average pay for an entry-level case manager is around $44,000, DHS said. In its last annual evaluation of community umbrella agencies, DHS ranked nine out of 10 providers either “unsatisfactory” or “critical” when it comes to staff retention.

“Case managers across all CUAs see a lot of trauma in their work,” Fair said. “They go through a lot and they put themselves at risk every day. This is a really hard job — long hours, weekends, holidays, and people can only sustain that for a certain length of time.”

Nadeem Bezar, one of the attorneys for the three sisters, said public scrutiny could improve accountability. He is now considering rejecting future requests from providers to settle cases confidentially.

“There is a greater public interest in having these agencies identified,” Bezar said. (He declined to identify either provider in the recent cases, citing the settlement agreement.)

In addition to publishing annual report cards for CUA providers, Keafer, the DHS spokesperson, said CUAs are held accountable by the state and a newly established Child Welfare Oversight board, which meets quarterly.

“Involving as many communities as possible in child welfare services and programs is a crucial first step in strengthening families,” Keafer said. “System transformation does not happen overnight. It takes time.”

Philadelphia DHS “investigates serious incidents involving contracted providers,” Keafer said, but she declined to provide specifics.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has said it was not aware of the Turning Points case involving the three girls until alerted about the settlement by The Inquirer.